You may be a pro at whipping up a feast in the kitchen. But are you aware of the environmental footprint your cooking tools and gadgets have? 

No matter how healthy the food you cook may be, if you’re using environmentally unsafe tools to make them, you may still be putting your health at risk. Not only that, you could be harming the environment as well.

In this article, we’ll shine the light on one of the most ubiquitous tools in any kitchen: nonstick cookware.

PTFE: The Hidden Danger Lurking in Your Kitchen

Since its discovery in 1938, polytetrafluoroethylene (or PTFE) — better known by its trademark name Teflon — has revolutionized cooking for people all over the world. Teflon-coated pans not only make cooking hassle-free (and with considerably less fat or oil), they make cleanup a breeze too. 

Manufacturers of Teflon-coated nonstick cookware typically recommend that you use their products only for low- to medium-heat cooking. That’s because at temperatures higher than 327°C (or 620°F), the PTFE coating will start to break down. Here’s why that’s bad news:

1. They can make you sick. 

Ever heard of polymer fume fever, more commonly known as “Teflon flu”? Some people, after inhaling vapour from still-hot nonstick cookware brought under running water, develop flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and sore throat. And while the side effects of PTFE inhalation are largely temporary, the long-term effects of inhaling PTFE have not been studied yet. 

Here’s another cause for concern: When coated cookware is heated beyond its melting point, perfluorooctanoic acid (or PFOA, a compound used to make PTFE) may leach into your food (and eventually into your system), where it can become a potential health risk. PFOA has been linked to developmental problems, stroke, increased cholesterol levels, even cancer.

2. They can be fatal to birds. 

Have a pet bird at home? Make sure they are nowhere near the kitchen when you’re cooking with a nonstick skillet. The fumes emitted by overheated nonstick cookware are particularly toxic to small birds like quails and parakeets, which is one reason pet insurance companies warn against its dangers.

3. They’re not exactly environmentally friendly

Just how adversely does cooking with nonstick pans and skillets impact the environment? Here are a couple of things we dug up: 

  • Hard to recycle: Most nonstick cookware is made of either stainless steel or aluminium, both of which are recyclable. However, the chemical coating isn’t — and exposing it to fire poses the risk of producing environmentally hazardous substances, including CFC. This is why only a few recyclers will accept it. (If you happen to own one and are planning to recycle it, here’s more information on how to go about it.)
  • Large footprint: Compared to stainless steel or cast-iron cookware, which can last 30 years or more, nonstick pans have a shorter life span at 5 years (according to manufacturers). Realistically speaking though, given the tendency for nonstick coating to peel and flake at high temperatures (and get scratched from constant wear and tear), a more realistic lifespan would be 6 to 12 months — so you might end up buying a new one year after year. If you factor in the environmental cost of mining metal, each purchase eventually adds up to a hefty carbon footprint.
  • Contamination: DuPont (the company that owns the Teflon trademark) had been the target of a class-action suit in the 1990s for polluting the groundwater surrounding its West Virginia factory. Since 2015, DuPont has claimed to completely eradicate PFOA from its kitchen products. And while most manufacturers have committed to doing the same, there are places where its use still isn’t banned, like Asia and South America. The problem? Petroleum-based PFOA is a notoriously mobile and persistent substance; traces of it have even been found in animals as far as the Arctic. 

Do I Have Greener Options?

Thankfully, there are more sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based PTFE-coated cookware that will feel right at home in your eco-friendly kitchen. Here are our recommendations:

1. Ceramic

What it is: Not to be confused with ceramic-coated cookware (that is, metal pans coated with a ceramic glaze), pure ceramicware is made of a mix of moulded clay and water fire-hardened in a kiln then glazed to give it a waterproof finish. 

Pros

Cooking with ceramicware is more energy efficient since it heats up quickly and retains heat longer than most conventional cookware, letting you save on gas and electricity costs. It’s non-reactive (making it safe for cooking acidic food), non-toxic, and is able to withstand temperatures up to 450 °C (840 °F). 

Pure ceramicware also has a smaller carbon footprint since it doesn’t contain any metal raw material. Additionally, its versatility — you can use it in the microwave, oven, broiler, on a stovetop, and even on the grill — means you’ll need fewer cooking vessels at home.

Cons

Since it’s not completely nonstick, you will still need to use a bit of fat or oil when broiling or frying to keep your food from sticking to the surface. Ceramicware is not recyclable (although it can be repurposed in different ways — including as a plant pot, since it doesn’t leach toxic chemicals into the soil). 

Read:

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2. Cast-iron

What it is: Heavy-duty cookware made from pouring molten iron and steel, along with limestone and carbon, into a mould. Dutch ovens, in particular the seasoned kind, are classified as cast-iron cookware.

Pros

Cast-iron pans and skillets are virtually indestructible: with proper care and maintenance, they can last 75 years or more. They’re also impervious to high heat, which makes them ideal for use when searing meats. Just like ceramicware, cast-iron cookware is flexible and can be used for frying, searing, baking, and grilling. 

Compared to aluminium, the raw materials needed to make cast-iron cookware, namely iron and steel, have a smaller environmental impact. It heats up easily and retains heat longer, making it fuel-efficient. It’s easily recyclable too.

Cons

While it is extremely durable, cast-iron cookware needs extra care and upkeep. It needs to be seasoned regularly to maintain its nonstick patina, and the surface needs to be coated with oil after every use to keep it from rusting.

And while it’s versatile, it can’t be used to heat water or cook acidic food (such as tomatoes). It’s also heavy, so don’t expect to be doing any fancy tossing and flipping with your cast-iron skillet.

3. Stainless Steel

What it is: Stainless steel cookware, which is primarily made from an alloy of chromium and iron, is a favourite of professional chefs, and for good reason. You can either get pure stainless steel cookware or opt for one with an aluminium or copper core. 

Pros

Stainless steel is hard to beat when it comes to flexibility, durability, and food compatibility. It won’t rust, corrode, scratch, or dent. You can use it for a wide variety of cooking, including baking in the oven. 

When it comes to energy requirements, it takes 79 gigajoules of energy to produce 1 metric ton of stainless steel from virgin materials (and only 26 GJ if sourced from post-consumer content). And it’s 100% recyclable. 

Cons

Cooking with stainless steel requires a bit of a learning curve; knowing how to preheat and season your pan is essential if you want to keep your food from sticking.

Also, one of the biggest drawbacks of pure, no-core stainless steel is its poor thermal conductivity, making it less fuel efficient than other metal cookware. Of course, you can always go for one with an aluminium or copper core. (We recommend copper since it’s more sustainable.)

If you happen to have nonstick cookware in your cupboard, don’t be too quick to toss them in the bin. (If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s not a very eco-friendly move.)

Check if the coating is still good; if there are no scratches, then you should still be able to cook with it safely. Just make sure to take extra care when using and washing it — and make sure never to heat an empty pan.  

But if you’re fully convinced that nonstick pans and skillets have no place in your kitchen, then at least consider giving them away or recycling them. 

Happy green cooking! 

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